WHAT DOES HEALTHY MEAN?
Meet my mother, Alicia Enriqueta de Cotilla who just turned 96.
When I tell people my mother’s age they say nice things, because they cannot see her. When I am out shopping with Mama and I tell people her age they never believe me. She just doesn’t look or act it. Mama has a sharp mind and an agile body; she lives alone, drives to the gym every day, pays her bills and solves her own problems.
Yes, she has good genes but above all else Mama is smart and she has solid food rules she has always lived by. Mama doesn’t smoke, other than the occasional Cuban cigar. She doesn’t drink either, except for the occasional celebratory cup.
Mama would daily feed us tablespoons of cod liver oil. We drank eight-ounces of fresh cow’s milk three times a day and one eight ounce glass of fresh orange juice. Mornings were daunting with sixteen ounces of fluid to get down.
She worked hard to feed us good foods, believing that healthy food built not just healthy bodies and strong minds but a nurturing spirit. Food was more than fuel for the body; it was food for the soul and the mind. Mama would grate fresh carrots into cheese cloth and squeeze the juice into cups for us to drink. She cracked open coconuts with a swing of her hammer while her polished red nails bit into her palm. She worked the nail-head out and poured us each a drink.
Whenever we complained about some food we hated, like liver, she would patiently tick off its health benefits. Her lessons stuck in the recesses of my brain. When it was my turn to feed my own children I followed my mother’s example, except for the cod liver oil.
We never ate cereal for breakfast; Mama believed that lots of protein grew healthy brains and strong bodies. We ate food that most of my friends never recognized like yuca and black beans.
Mama never fed us meat that came in a casing or a package she could not see through. We never ate bologna, hot dogs or salami; if she could not tell the animal the meat had come from we didn’t eat it.
“After all”, she would say, “anything can be ground up and stuffed in a casing. Only God knows what’s inside.”
We always went food shopping as a family. Twice a month we crossed the Bayonne Bridge into Elizabeth to shop at the Finest. There were no taxes in New Jersey on food or gasoline. It was fun to see all the foods that we saw advertised on TV. We begged for boxes of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and Skippy Peanut Butter. Mama always took these moments to teach us food-lessons.
“Wow,” she would say, “That’s the one on TV, isn’t it? What’s in it anyway? I forgot my glasses; could you read me the ingredients?”
Her tone held no clue. No judgment in her stance. She leaned towards the cart she was pushing and relaxed into the moment. I volunteered to read the ingredients, eager to bring home that box.
Every time I ran into a word I did not recognize she stopped me and asked, “Now what IS that?”
I never knew, so I read on, feeling uncomfortable. She let it go while I read. As the list and questions grew, I started to get an uneasy feeling. Eventually I gave up, unsure if even I wanted to eat this stuff. As I reached the end of the list I had no choice left but to put that box back on its shelf. Mama leaned over me smiling and hugged me to her.
“Why are you so smart?” she asked as she hugged me tight. “I believe that you have made the best choice! What a clever girl you are, taking such good care of your health.”
We moved out of the aisle toward the meat section. Mama stopped her cart and looked down at me. “Doing the right thing is never the easy thing.” She sighed, squeezing me one last time before moving on.
“Down the outside of the market”, she started, trying to distract me. “That is where the real food is. Don’t be tempted by the commercials on TV to change your mind. Stay out of the aisles where fake-food lives. Fake-food is made in a plant and you want to eat foods that come from a plant.”
Mom understood the connection between health and food. She also understood that what you ate affected how you felt. Whenever I complained of a sour or tender tummy it was always met with a battery of question and never a quick fix:
• How much water did you drink today?
• Did you poop this morning?
• What were your poops like?
• When did you last eat?
• How long have you been feeling like this?
As we walked she shared her stories with me. Placing her arm around my shoulders she reminded me about her father. “Remember your Abuelo Francisco made a living selling produce. But it wasn’t just fruits and vegetables he sold but all the crops from the country.”
“Your Abuelo was not a country man but he knew food, understood the connection between food and health. He was a curios man in love with plants — you’re a lot like him.” She rubbed my back as she remembered.
“‘A happy cow gives tasty beef’, he always said. He knew that a well-cared for cow allowed to roam open fields eating grass produced the best tasting beef.”
Mama reached into the meat case and pulled out a huge tube of ground beef. “Never buy this.”
I peered down and squinted at the package, “It looks pretty. Why can’t we get it?”
She rubbed the edges, turned it around in her hand, a quizzical look on her face. “Yes, it is a pretty package, but can you see what’s inside? I can’t. Help me, you look.”
Together we flipped it around but could see no actual beef. There was beef imprinted on the outside but there was no little window or flap to see what was inside. Hmm, why was that? Mama was right; I could not see the actual meat.
Mama looked at the price tag, “Well the price sure is tempting. But is it worth it to my health? My wallet will be happy but what good is the money without the health to enjoy it? I think I’ll pass. You? ” She turns her face towards, genuinely asking me to weigh in.
Of course I agreed with her. Who knew what the inside really looked like? So we put the package back in its case and walked on.
By this time my head was pounding. She bore on and I played the role of dutiful daughter, I listened.
“Your Abuelo always kept his own flock of chickens. We lived in town, we were city folk not country people and cities were different back when I was a girl. Everyone had a kitchen garden, chickens and often a cow for milking. But anyway, he leased the space behind our house for the chickens to have plenty of room.”
“’Cows like to have space and chickens do too’, your Abuelo would always say. “When they are allowed to have room they do more than just give us meat and eggs. They work the soil; eat bugs, poop, and lay eggs — the chickens, not the cows – while walking around building strong muscles. How can that not affect the taste?”
“When a chicken is raised right, the eggs not only taste better, they look different. Crack the egg into a frying pan and the yolk stands tall and is a deep yellow, almost touching on orange. The eggs from the store run straight to the edges of the pan, the yolk pale by comparison. I miss your Abuelos fabulous eggs.”
“As kids we loved to hop the fence and steel those warm eggs. We took your Abuelas thick needle and with it we poked holes on each end. We sucked out mounds of them, a snack to keep our energy up for playing.” She laughs, shaking her head as she walks on, propelling the shopping cart forward. “That was our idea of a snack.” She snickers some more and a smile lights her eyes as she leads me forward along the perimeter of the market.
“Our bodies are like our cars. Good clean gasoline and regular maintenance keeps our engines clean and healthy. Good clean food is our body’s fuel. Feed it well and our bodies will give us good health. Just like a car. Keep it well maintained and feed it good gas and it will last almost forever. Your body is the same.”
At 62, I have spent my life following Mamas health rules and I have benefited from them. I have no health issues and take no medications. I am strong and have high energy. Mama taught me well. I listened to her and followed her teachings. I don’t eat as much meat as she once fed me and consume a lot more leafy greens than she ever did.
I thank her for the building blocks to good health her food rules have built.
At 96, my mother stands as a testament to the validity of her teachings about what being healthy looks like. Her high energy level, clear intelligent mind and vibrant health add credence to her teachings.
WHAT DOES HEALTHY MEAN?